The festive period does not just mean turkey, mince pies and repeats on television. In the world of Premier League football, the last two weeks of December herald the imminent opening of the January transfer window – and that means big-money transfers, last-gasp deadline-day scrambles and more rumours than presents under the tree.
Silly season is already well underway. Manchester City’s sacking of Mark Hughes and appointment of former Inter Milan boss Roberto Mancini immediately sent the rumour mill into overdrive. With City’s untold millions supporting him, Mancini is able to bid for any player he wants, but even with that fact in mind, some of the stories that sprang up following the Italian’s appointment should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Mancini will no doubt look to put his mark on City’s squad but that is more likely to happen in the summer. For now, Mancini would be better served making small additions to City’s already talented group of players. But evidently, some newspapers disagree.
Only 24 hours after being confirmed in the role, Mancini was linked with eight players by the Sunday Times– Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, Franck Ribery, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Yaya Toure, Thierry Henry and Matthew Upson, with more to follow as the window beckons. Such a spree has to be considered highly unlikely, and while Mancini would no doubt welcome some of those names into his squad, with no guarantee of European football next term, are the likes of Ribery and Aguero going to choose City over the other suitors both are sure to attract? As for the idea Torres or Mascherano could move to the other end of the East Lancs road, stranger things may have happened in football, but surely not many.
Every team in the Premier League will be linked with a whole host of names over the coming weeks and while some stories may have basis, some will seem unlikely and, as in the case of Mascherano and Torres to City (or, as the News of the World reported, Chelsea), some reports will be so outlandish as to be little more than a waste of good ink. The riches of City make them the prime focus of transfer tittle-tattle, and with a new manager the gossip is only going to increase. Most new managers like to bring in players they are familiar with, that they know will fit their style of play. Time will tell if Mancini follows that route.
But a new manager is not going to be the only factor affecting many clubs’ transfer business. The African Nations Cup may encourage teams missing players for the duration of the tournament to enter the loan market to cover any gaps in the squad. Of the Premier League’s 20 teams, 13 could lose at least one player to the competition in Angola, and in many cases, three or four. But since those departures will only be temporary, making a permanent signing could be unwarranted and some teams may follow the example of Everton, who have already clinched the loan signing of Landon Donovan, the American forward, who will offer cover for Nigerian international Yakubu during his two and a half month loan spell at Goodison Park. Chelsea could be hardest hit by the loss of Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, which, combined with their impending transfer ban, could force Carlo Ancelotti into spending some more of Roman Abramovich’s money.
The continuing global economic recession is another issue that may colour what happens in the transfer window. West Ham last week had their debt repayments frozen until September, meaning their owners, Icelandic bank Straumur, are not under immediate pressure to sell the club. Despite that, the Hammers financial position remains insecure and should a club looking to add to their forward line come knocking for Carlton Cole, Gianfranco Zola may find the decision taken out of his hands. Cole, a product of Chelsea’s youth system, would make an interesting replacement for Drogba but a move to Stamford Bridge to act as the Ivory Coast captain’s understudy could hinder the ex-Aston Villa striker’s development and jeopardise his place in England’s World Cup squad. Cole would be better off playing regularly at Upton Park, but the chance of joining a Champions League level side may be too great to reject.
In contrast to West Ham, Birmingham City have no such money worries. One of the form teams of the Premier League with five wins and a draw in their last six games, Birmingham’s new owners promised Alex McLeish a war chest of £40m, but that was before Big Eck’s side found such scintillating form. Their recent success has been built on the shoulders of centre-backs Scott Dann and Roger Johnson, with Stephen Carr and Liam Ridgewell rounding off the back four. Carr provides experience from right-back, but Ridgewell is out of position on the left flank and that could be the area McLeish pinpoints for improvement next month.
January will be a careful balancing act for the for the former Rangers boss – if he spends big, he risks upsetting the equilibrium at St. Andrews and undoing the good work achieved in fostering a strong team spirit. Conversely, if McLeish chooses not to splash Carson Yeung’s cash and Birmingham’s promising season peters out to nothing, the manager may be chastised for a perceived lack of ambition by the board, if not the fans. But McLeish is a strong-willed, experienced manager unlikely to be swayed by pressure from above.
The January transfer window is disliked by many in football, and it is easy to see why managers may not be fans of it. For those without money to spend, it can be a painful four weeks spent watching your rivals improve. But even for the likes of Mancini, Ancelotti and McLeish, with plenty of funds at their disposal, the decision to buy or not to buy can bring more problems than solutions. These next few weeks could make or break the seasons of many of the Premier League’s teams. Getting in right in January might mean avoiding relegation, sealing a place in Europe or taking the league title. Getting it wrong might not bear thinking about.